Monday, 14 September 2009

Please Look After This Land

springcoppice apologises for the long period of radio silence. I’ve been in the Pacaya Samiria, the largest national reserve in the Peruvian Amazon, co-leading an expedition of young people from around the UK with the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES). Some field updates are available on our blog here, but once our zap email connection failed we were reduced to telegrammatic messages by satellite phone, so when it comes to written reflection on our activities, that’s going to have to happen after the fact, here and elsewhere.

The post-expedition blues are a well-documented phenomenon, and many of our young explorers are reporting feeling very flat now that they’re back in the UK. But the period after a long time away offers a great opportunity to do a lot of careful thinking about the expedition experience – thinking that simply isn’t possible when you’ve got food, clean water, shelter etc. to worry about, and when (in our case) there are 62 of you on two fairly small boats up the Amazon. This post-expedition reflection phase can be a difficult time, but it’s an important one.

BSES is committed to the completion of meaningful scientific projects on all of the expeditions it puts into the field each year. This year we were assisting a team of Peruvian scientists from the University of Iquitos in gathering biodiversity data. The information is given to the authorities of the national reserve, and helps make the case for the ongoing protection of the region. This worthy cause has to be reiterated at the more tedious moments in our survey work – baking under the sun in a boat, drifting down river looking for turtles for many hours, it’s important to remind yourself how your efforts will ultimately be used in the maintenance of the area’s status as protected land.

While our expedition is given meaning by this scientific context, the Pacaya Samiria’s designation as a national reserve is not to be accepted unquestioningly. During our expedition we were keen to find out about the people who were displaced from their land, by military force, in 1970 in order for the government to establish this reserve. While our contemporary notion of the rainforest as the “lungs of the Earth” chimes with an attempt to protect and conserve the Pacaya Samiria, questions must be asked about the complex web of motivations that actually contribute to conservation status for any area of land. Rumours abound of government interest in this region’s natural resources – predominantly wood and oil, the very industries that, along with agribusiness, place the rainforest under greatest threat.

The people previously resident in the Pacaya Samiria were mostly of the ethnic group Cocama-Cocamilla. Since the 1970s, many of them have stayed within approved villages near the edges of the reserve, close to their hereditary land, but given only restricted access to its resources. Many more have left the area for Iquitos and Lima, beginning an entirely different way of life. For those that have stayed, the negotiations with the park authorities have not been easy. It is the Cocama-Cocamilla people that know this land best, and yet their levels of education in matters of policy and government cannot compete with those sent from Lima to run the reserve. Many C-C people are determined to work for the reserve, helping to protect and monitor its resources, but they are limited to guarding and guiding roles, while those with real power are imported from the capital. This educational gap will only be filled when external scholarships are available, so that C-C people can achieve the necessary degrees to take powerful positions within the Pacaya Samiria. There is great sadness and anger amongst C-C people and their friends that the lands of their forebears are being controlled by those who, by dint of background, do not understand the way of life that persists, in displaced and modified form, within the reserve. But there is hope, too, that by forming alliances with organisations beyond Peru, some of these problems might be shared with the world. The people of the Pacaya Samiria want the land protected – a situation such as that in Bagua is to be avoided at all costs. But the designation of a reserve, for all its protective powers, is not a simple matter. Our primary job in the Amazon this summer was the monitoring of birds and mammals, but it was by factoring people back into the equation that we really came to understand the contested status of any conservation area.